Thursday, November 3, 2011

Whining and Dining

Film, by its very plastic nature, lends itself to playing with the space/time continuum.

It can jump from one era or reality to another just like we can believe that someone closing their front door at home and then walking into their office across town is continuous because all the stuff in between is superfluous, boring and implicit anyway

There have been some very good and many abominable films playing with these elements. One that truly milks the medium intelligently is David Cronenburg’s eXistenZ, in which one soon has no idea what is “real” and what is video game anymore – and that’s only one of the reasons why it’s good.

On the other hand, you have something like the horrendous Déjà Vu in which Denzel Washington as an FBI agent travels back in time to save a woman and, of course, falls in love with her - without the slightest hint of irony.

Someone had to send all of this up and who else but Woody Allen, who might well have found his alter ego in the pouting Owen Wilson. If the two don’t exactly look like each other (across the space/time continuum), they do have about the same pitch when they whine - and does Wilson's Gil whine in Midnight in Paris.

Then again, he does have plenty to whinge about. First of all, he’s a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, which is enough to depress anyone. Secondly, he’s got a bad novel with which he’s stuck. But he has a beautiful fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdam). On the other hand, her parents, who they’re accompanying to Paris, are rabid Republicans.

Then, just to crown everything, they bump into Inez’s professor friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his virtually mute wife. Like so many academics, the man’s not only in love with his own voice, he also thinks all the world’s a lecture hall.

So you can’t exactly blame Gil for being bored, irritated and restless. He wants, not quite as convincingly as his writer/director perhaps, to stop being an American. He wants to experience Paris for itself, not through the brash, daytime eyes of an American.

The main character here, of course, is the city itself. This is not a Paris with any social problems, though the American ones are rattled off by Paul, lest Allen be accused of having no social conscience whatsoever. But it is a perfectly convincing ode to a city, a love song whose premise is that the city is more durable and magical than its problems.

It is, as Gil says, quoting Ernest Hemingway, a moveable feast - and this is where most critics stop discussing the plot because Gil’s discontent with the present is so profound that he ends up, seamlessly, in the Paris of the 1920s!

That “really” is the young Hemingway, played very convincingly by Corey Stoll, drinking wine and talking about death without adjectives. They’re all there. Scott and the insecure, talented and suicidal Zelda (Fitzgerald). Cole (Porter). Gertrude (Stein). Pablo (Picasso). Among others.

And Gil, dressed in the usual writer’s uniform of ill-fitting trousers, a dull tie and check jacket in 2010, fits perfectly into the era!

Allen is clearly tired of everything that America or American film stands for, and if his Christina Vicky Barcelona was laced with Hispano clichés, then his praise song to Paris is laced with much better ones.

Carla Bruni does a perfectly natural tour guide and Lea Seydoux as a young shop assistant oozes unassuming charm. So, not only can the old guy still make a gently funny film with not a drop of overt violence or invective in it, but having removed himself from the equation he finally makes his women – and their city of light - glow.

Neil Sonnekus

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